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Article updated: 1/17/2013 10:47 AM

Elk Grove supervisor reflects on long career

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

After nearly 28 years with Elk Grove Township, Supervisor Nanci Vanderweel is stepping down at the end of her elected four-year term this April.

"I figured I would know when the time came (to retire) after I achieved some of the things I wanted to do," said the 75-year-old woman who served as a township trustee for the first 20 years and later took the helm when former supervisor Richard "Dick" Hall died in 2006.

"This has been very satisfying ... Now, it's time to move on and let somebody else sit here," she said.

Vanderweel has been grooming her successor, Elk Grove Township Clerk Michael Sweeney of Arlington Heights, who is running unopposed in the April 9 consolidated election.

Vanderweel became the first woman supervisor in Elk Grove Township's 162-year history. This week she reflected on her long, illustrious career in suburban politics, which started in the 1970s.

Vanderweel, her husband, Leonard, and 3-year-old daughter, Kitty, moved from Chicago to Elk Grove Village in 1964 because the suburbs offered affordable housing and better public schools.

A few years later, Vanderweel led residents' opposition in a fight over a zoning issue with the village.

"We mustered 590 people to come to a meeting," she said.

The village board changed its mind about rezoning the property. That's when Vanderweel caught the eye of the late mayor Jack Paul.

Paul convinced Vanderweel to run village task forces and later appointed her to the plan commission in 1969.

"One day he said, 'I want you to run for the village board'," Vanderweel recalled. "I remember saying, 'There's no women on village boards,' and he said, 'So you'll be a first.'"

At 33, Vanderweel became the first woman to be elected to the Elk Grove Village board in 1971. Her campaign slogan was, "A woman trustee, why not?"

"I've been a trailblazer, which hopefully has led to many other women being involved in their local governments," she said. "Back in the '70s it was very unusual to have women in local government."

Vanderweel remembers attending Illinois Municipal League conferences where she and Virginia Hayter, then a Hoffman Estates village trustee who later became mayor, were among a handful of women in the room.

Vanderweel served three terms on the Elk Grove Village board. Yet initially, it wasn't easy getting fellow board members to take her seriously.

"We were a fighting bunch," Vanderweel said. "Most of the men were chauvinists on the board. It took some getting used to for them. They weren't the good ol' boys anymore."

Shortly after Vanderweel was elected, Paul resigned as mayor. Trustee Charles Zettek was appointed in his place and the first words out of his mouth were, "What the (heck) am I supposed to do with a broad on the board?" Vanderweel said.

"It's a famous quote in Elk Grove Village now," she laughed.

Vanderweel and Zettek had been on opposing sides of the zoning controversy which led to her involvement in the village.

Vanderweel said Zettek's tactics were to corner people until they crumbled into submission, but she stood her ground early on. "I said, 'You either get used to it or you don't. That's up to you, but I'm here as a duly elected official. And another thing, I don't make coffee.'"

"We ended up best of friends," she added.

During her tenure with Elk Grove, Vanderweel was involved in the planning of the westward expansion of the village. She chose not to run for re-election in 1981. She later served on the board of Alexian Brothers hospital and helped plan the early stages of the Alexian Brothers Medical Center.

Vanderweel said her biggest accomplishments at the township include compiling the first and only history book, published for its sesquicentennial in 2000, and being able to directly help township residents.

"We help hundreds every year between general assistance, emergency assistance and our pantry," she said. "We are feeding about 100 families a month."

Vanderweel also is proud of the free library she started for which the township earned the Governor's Home Town Award in 2008.

"It's something you can do for people," she said. "My little library, it serves everybody."

Vanderweel said she plans to continue her community involvement as vice president of the Community Character Coalition board, and pursue personal goals such as taking piano lessons, learning sign language, and mastering her fear of heights.

In a few weeks, Vanderweel will be celebrating her 76th birthday and 53 years of being married. Vanderweel said the running joke between her and husband Leonard is they have seen each other only 25 of those 53 years due to her public service commitments. Yet, she has no regrets.

"To do something for somebody, it's worth every moment of it," she said.

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